When The Merry Widow premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on Dec. 30, 1905, no one could have foreseen what an explosive phenomenon it was to become.
The historic theater, which once had housed Beethoven (he literally lived in an apartment in the theater while working on Fidelio), had more recently developed a reputation for expensive flops. The manager, Wilhelm Karczag, thought he saw some promise in a story about a wealthy widow whose impecunious small country was hoping to avoid financial disaster by securing her fortune. But the composer he commissioned, Richard Heuberger, turned out some lackluster music and seemed eager to get out of his assignment anyway.
The discouraged Karczag toyed with the idea of dropping the project, but decided to take a chance on another composer. His second choice was Franz Lehár, a former military bandmaster who had had a couple modest successes with operettas but only one unqualified musical hit, a waltz called "Gold and Silver." Lehár, a talented and highly skilled musician, wrote one test number in the space of a few hours one day, and upon getting the green light composed the rest of The Merry Widow over the summer of 1905.
The opening-night audience was enthusiastic but the reviews were mixed. The next few weeks were a little spotty, but as word of mouth spread and Lehár's melodies began to be hummed and whistled around the city, enthusiasm increased.
Within a year the Merry Widow phenomenon had begun. Productions sprouted around Europe, translations into numerous languages were commissioned and the Widow sailed to the United States, South America and eventually around the world. Silent films of the operetta joined the craze, with live pianists and organists supplying sound. There were recordings, of course, and rapid commercial exploitation. Lehár biographer Bernard Grun mentions Merry Widow hats, shoes, cigars, chocolates, perfumes and liqueurs, among other things, and dance contests in which couples tried to win the prize for best Hanna (or Anna) and Danilo.
In his 1970 biography Gold and Silver, Grun calculated that there were more than half a million performances of The Merry Widow in its first 60 years. There have undoubtedly been tens of thousands more in the four decades since. No other operetta has equaled it.
The roots of The Merry Widow go back almost half a century before its premiere. It began in Paris in 1861 with French playwright Henri Meilhac, who collaborated with Bizet on Carmen and with Offenbach on a number of operettas. Meilhac wrote a comedy (sans music) called L'attaché d'ambassade, about a poor German duchy whose ambassador to France has to arrange the marriage of an attaché at the embassy to the duchy's richest widow in order to keep her fortune in-country. This is the plot of The Merry Widow, of course, with some adjustment of details.
Meilhac's play was not a success, but it caught the attention of some Austrian theatrical figures, and in 1862 Alexander Bergen wrote a German-language adaptation called Der Gesandtschaftsattaché. This was considerably more successful than the French original, with a lengthy run and several revivals.
Early in the new century Austrian librettist Leo Stein looked over a copy of the play (he had seen it onstage earlier) and decided it would make a fine musical libretto. He showed the play to his collaborator, Victor Léon, who agreed. Soon they had their new version of the story. The time was brought up to date, the German duchy became a Balkan principality, the names of the characters were changed, and so was the title. The new one, The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe), shifted the focus from the embassy attaché to the rich widow.
Lehár himself contributed the name of the fictional Balkan principality, Pontevedro. He undoubtedly was thinking of a one-act opera competition he had once entered. His opera, Rodrigo, finished out of the money. The winner was something called The Rose of Pontevedra by Joseph Forster. Lehár simply changed the final vowel. When the operetta became wildly popular there were some diplomatic rumblings over the name of the country. To some, Pontevedro seemed suspiciously like a real principality, Montenegro, especially considering that a lowly embassy secretary in the operetta is named Njegus, which was the name of the Montenegrin royal family, and the Montenegrin crown prince was named Danilo (in the operetta, Danilo is a count). The Montenegrin embassy in Vienna protested, but the crown prince, who obviously had a sense of humor, took it in stride. He told an interviewer, Grun writes, that the portrayal of Danilo, a handsome and debonair bon vivant, was "by no means so inaccurate."
When Lehár's name was first mentioned as a possible composer for The Merry Widow, there was some concern that the former provincial bandmaster would not be able to write French-sounding music (the theater wanted to emphasize the operetta's Parisian setting). The doubters needn't have worried; the overture could have been written by Offenbach, and the gaiety of much of the music is certainly not un-French.
In fact, although he was born in a small city in Hungary that undoubtedly would have been considered backwater by residents of the great European capitals had they known of its existence, Lehár was a highly sophisticated man. He had to be. His mother spoke Hungarian but little German. His father spoke German but almost no Hungarian. Somehow their marriage succeeded despite the linguistic barriers (or maybe because of them), and the young Franz learned the first two of the many languages he would speak fluently.
The second sophisticating influence was Father Lehár's profession. He was a prominent bandmaster in the Austro-Hungarian army. So little Franz was what we would today call an "army brat." The father's different posts (the family moved 22 times) brought the Lehár children in contact with a wide variety of cultures and languages. Today many of the places in which the Lehárs lived are independent nations; then they were all part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Lehár soaked up the diverse environments he was immersed in, and the varied music he heard had a distinct influence on his later operettas. (In The Merry Widow the most famous song, "Vilja," has something of an eastern European flavor.)
Lehár seemed destined for his father's profession, although at the Prague conservatory (Lehár spoke Czech, of course) Dvofiák saw some of his musical exercises and urged him to give up his bandmaster ambitions and become a composer instead. At first Lehár was undeterred. He joined the Austro-Hungarian army and served as a bandmaster, off and on, for 12 years. But finally he gave it up for his real calling.
The Merry Widow firmly established Lehár in his compositional career. There followed other successes (and some failures). He became wealthy and world-famous and his amiable personality won him many friends, among them, Giacomo Puccini. The two got together occasionally to play piano and sing music from their latest projects to each other. They conversed in Italian, another of Lehár's languages, as Puccini's German was shaky.
After decades of success, Lehár's final years were tinged with sadness. Hitler came to power in Germany, and in 1938 the Nazis took over Austria. Many prominent musicians fled, but Lehár felt he was too old to take up life in a foreign country. A few of his actions were criticized after the war. Once, at the request of a high Nazi official, he sent an autographed copy of a Merry Widow program to Hitler, who was a fan of his. He also conducted a program for an audience of German soldiers. But Lehár undoubtedly felt he had little choice. Certainly he had no sympathy with the Nazi ideology. His wife, Sophie, was Jewish, as were many of his collaborators, including Stein and Leon. His best friend, tenor Richard Tauber (Lehár called him "my brother") was half-Jewish.
Lehár almost lost his wife during the war. One day a couple of Gestapo agents showed up at Lehár's door. They announced that they had come to take Frau Lehár away. If Lehár had not been home, his wife would have disappeared. But he was there and called a high Nazi official he knew, who spoke to the agents by phone, instructing them to desist.
Frau Lehár was not bothered again, but the experience thoroughly frightened her. She began keeping poison in her purse, with the intention of committing suicide if she were arrested. Both Lehárs survived the war, as did Tauber, who had fled to England. Lehár and Tauber met again and renewed their longtime friendship (the tenor had starred in many of Lehár's operettas). But it was too late for new collaborations. Poor health soon took the life of first Sophie, then Tauber, and on Oct. 24, 1948, Lehár himself. He was 78 years old.
Olin Chism is a former member of the arts staff at The Dallas Morning News. He writes frequently about music.